Some see it as a regression. I see it as something else entirely.
Recently a very close friend of mine began collecting film on VHS.
It’s a cheap hobby, with most of his acquisitions coming from yard sales and the occasional, dusty stock of a local thrift store. There’s practically no market for used VHS – it’s essentially a dead, discarded format with very little appeal to entice and motivate collectors to preserve them. Outside of some incredibly rare specimens, VHS tapes sell very cheaply and my friend has picked up his entire VHS library for pennies on the dollar.
Now bear in mind that my friend is also a videophile and has a profoundly learned understanding of HDTV technology. At the slightest provocation, he can rattle off detailed technical information about the latest advances in the market. In short, he takes visual fidelity very seriously. He and I have spent endless hours discussing the advent and proliferation of streaming versus the visual superiority of Blu-ray. We constantly compare notes when sitting down to watch the latest horror film remasters from Arrow Video and Shout Factory!, marveling at how exceptional these prints look.
Yet, not only does my friend keep an archive of VHS cassettes in his viewing room but he also intends to eventually have a little corner station set up so that he can play these tapes on a VHS player. He plans on pumping the signal through a thirty year-old CRT television. As we all know, this is going to look atrocious when compared to the pristine, high res images we’ve all become accustomed to.
So, the question is why?
Why expend time, energy and resources to watch films in an inferior way?
Why do collectors spend so much time tracking down old vinyl, films, and video games that could be just as easily downloaded?
While I won’t answer for my close friend, I will state that from my own experiences, the answer is simple: HISTORY.
When my buddy began his collection a few months ago, he asked me if there was anything I might like to own on VHS. I gave him an accounting of my favorite films and told him if he came across anything on the list, to nab them and I’d reinburse him.
Since then, he’s actually delivered a generous smattering of awesomeness, including an original copy of The Empire Strikes Back in worn but good condition and a copy of Ghostbusters, factory sealed.
The latter is of some significance to me because Ghostbusters was one of my favorite films growing up and when it was released on video, it retailed for close to 100 dollars. Owning a copy was something that wasn’t possible back then so when my friend tracked me down a new-in-the-box copy of one of my very favorite childhood movies, there was something almost cathartic about finally owning it. While I obviously have the Blu-ray sitting on my shelf that offers a picture and sound quality infinitely superior, that VHS cassette is not only a part of the storied history of the medium – it is a part of MY history; a once unattainable item from my youth now in my possession. The irony is that this VHS copy – even factory sealed – is worth practically nothing and yet it’ll adorn my collection forever as something to be cherished.
My friend also tracked down a copy of JAWS – one of my Personal Top Ten Films – and the kicker here was that this was a video store copy from a local shop that had closed down nearly a decade ago. This particular store served the surrounding community for more than thirty years before it shuttered and not only had I and my family rented from there innumerable times, I’m almost positive this particular copy of JAWS – a movie I forced my parents to rent continuously as a child – is the exact copy we checked-out repeatedly .
When I think about the trajectory that tape has followed to eventually wind up in my possession, this time permanently, it makes me smile. This is an old copy – three decades or more – and the fact that it exists outside of a landfill is practically miraculous, as is the fact that my friend managed to acquire it and returned it to me. When I consider that tape, I can remember my much younger self in that now defunct video store, looking at the back cover, and in doing so, recollecting a very different time.
What is truly special about these artifacts – these relics of the past – is that the history they carry is both of the medium itself and also of the thousands of hands that grasped that case and watched that film, including my own.
I recently reviewed an exceptional retrospective art collection by Bitmap Books called the NES Visual Compendium, which highlights numerous games from the Nintendo Entertainment System, specifically their pixel art. One thing I took away from that book was how powerful nostalgia is and how often people seem to regard it in a dismissive way instead of embracing what a compelling, heady bit of time travel it truly is. Human beings are largely a collection of experiences, and those experiences, and how we respond to them, make up a significant part of who we are. These images and objects can, like a talisman, ignite something deep in the psyche. They can fire synapses and flood our mind with rich, warm memories.
And that really is a remarkable thing.
After the recent announcement of the SNES Classic, it has been astounding to watch people get excited about the impending release of a micro-console that plays software from two decades ago. And while just about every game on that list is admittedly exceptional, I think there is also a strong pull to the aesthetics of the hardware. Like the NES Classic, people want to play these games on something that looks like the SNES, using controllers that are essentially replicas of what they used twenty-five years ago.
And that brings me back around to retro-collecting and a defense of those who seek out vintage film and games (and all their many peripheral trappings) to the confusion of some.
Scouring all corners of the globe for software that can often be attained easily (legal or otherwise) probably strikes many people as an inconceivable and unnecessary time sink. Yet there really is nothing quite like holding an artifact of the past – your past – in your hand. Downloading a ROM of Mega Man 2 and playing it on your current console or PC is fine. But it is a decidedly different experience than having the actual cartridge, replete with the artwork and tactility of that grey little treasure, in your hand before putting it into a NES and powering it up.
Cultural history takes many forms and what is shocking is how much of that history is lost to landfills, carelessly discarded as new conduits for our media emerge. We have transitioned to a digital age. A time when media is so much encrypted data on hard drives and disposable devices. Retro-collecting isn’t about hoarding or being stuck in the past; it’s about acknowledging that past and giving what came before some semblance of recognition and posterity. In many ways, the retro-enthusiast has become something of a curator. And when I consider the vast and interesting output of the many sites, authors, Twitter feeds and everyday collectors who compile and share these important vestiges, I am moved by their appreciation for a history that their hobby will help to preserve.
Be Proud of What You Do, Fellow Collectors. It’s More Important Than You Might Think.